Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.


Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Tuesday, April 07, 2020

The Economic Value of Traditional Weapons

There are quite a few people who have  been around martial arts for a while who have become weapons collectors. People have been collecting weapons for ages, and you must wonder what is their worth?

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea on the economic value of traditional weapons. The full post may be read here.

One of the most notable trends over the last decade has been the rapid appreciation of prices for antique Chinese weapons.  There is more variability in markets for antique objects than one might think.  Simply being rare was does not make something valuable.  Antique Chinese blades in good condition have always been somewhat hard to find.  But when I first became interested in them, serious collectors seemed to only be interested in Japanese arms. Their main piece of advice was to avoid Chinese weapons all together.

Needless to say, things are quite different now.  As China’s status as a global power has risen the domestic market for its own antiques has exploded, and the competition for those pieces that reside outside the country has likewise increased.  I have recently been wondering if changes in the prices of certain types of antique ethnographic objects (including weapons) might not correlate with shifts in China’s soft power position more generally.  Might it be possible to construct some sort of measurable “soft power index?”

It’s a question that deserves some study.  Though it is also interesting to note that the social status of the traditional Chinese martial arts has been falling at exactly the same time that the price of antiques associated with these practices have skyrocketed. It seems that it is the image of China itself, as either an entitiy to be feared or desired, which is the critical factor here.  The performance of TCMA practitioners “in the octagon” seems to be less of an issue.  At least in the short run.

I began to think about shifts in the antique market after running across the postcard at the top of this post.  In some ways it makes a nice companion piece to our last entry in this series. That also featured traditional Chinese weapons.  But in that case the weapons were displayed in a prominent location in their homeland and in a traditional way.

This photograph features what appears to be the collection of a European official or military officer.  I suspect that he was an administrator of some sort as his own pith helmet, displayed in the upped right hand corner of the image, is purposively contrasted with the traditional feathered hat of a Qing official on the other side of the display.  One is thus forced to conclude that the collection of these weapons represents, at least on a visual level, the spoils of China’s transformation from a traditional Empire to a modern nation in close communication with outside powers.

The most interesting items are all displayed in the central part of the image. Readers will immediately identify two sabers that both appear to be well made but of a civilian rather than military pattern.  Along with these we find a single hooked sword and a broad, flat, guard-less blade that resembles some sort of machete.  Whether this specimen is actually Chinese in origin is an interesting question.

Beneath the swords we find a collection of ancient Chinese coins, juxtaposed with what appears to be old style black powder rifle cartridges.  The lower half of the display keeps with the martial theme, but leaves the Chinese cultural sphere.  We now find a collection of arrows that appear to be from Papua New Guinea and which have nothing to do with the Chinese style bow at the very top of the display.  These are accompanied by a traditional paddle from the area, as well as a banner of some sort.  Unfortunately, this postcard is badly faded and I can’t quite make out the image on the cloth. One wonders if the machete grouped with the swords originated with this part of the collection.  The scene is then rounded off with a collection of musical instruments, pipes, a bamboo umbrella and a rustic bench.

Again, one strongly suspects that this collection represents the curios brought home by an official stationed first in China and then in New Guinea in either the late 19th or early 20th century.  Such an individual may have been German, British or something else.  If a sharper image of this postcard ever surfaces, perhaps the pith helmet (which seems to have some sort of insignia) will yield additional clues.

Still, I would expect that a German collector is probably a good bet.  Prior to WWI the Germans held colonies in Shandong (areas that saw a good deal of violence during the Boxer Uprising), and they also colonized much of Papua New Guinea.  Thus a bureaucrat’s or military officer’s career trajectory might very well connect these two otherwise distant places.  Further, the specimen has an early divided back indicating that it was likely printed in Germany sometime prior to WWI (between 1907 and 1914), when they lost their monopoly on the export of high-quality photographic postcards.

Sadly this postcard is not labeled in any way. We don’t even know who actually printed it.  But it seems likely that it was printed in the pre-WWI period using an early 20thcentury (or late 19thcentury) image.

How much did our unknown collector pay for these trophies?  Luckily we have a wonderful, if often overlooked, source on what was happening in the market for antique Chinese weapons as the nation’s military rushed to modernize.  Dr. Edward Bedloe, who was the US Consul in Xiamen from 1890-93, wrote a very interesting article documenting how the bottom fell out of the market for antique Chinese swords and other arms in the last two decades of the 19th century. Of course these were also years when China’s status as a major power were in decline, coming to a head with Japan’s defeat of the larger empire during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895).

Some context may be necessary before we can interpret the prices in Bedloe’s article. He notes that Chinese swords could be had for $1 or less, with good condition Qing military sabers selling for about $5.  To put this in perspective, a plain double barrel shotgun in the Sears Catalog for 1892 sold for $7, and a Winchester repeating rifle went for $14.  Most sportsmen in the US could afford the former firearm, but not the latter.  New Winchesters were always something of a luxury.  Perhaps those benchmarks will be useful when evaluating the perceived cultural value of a “$10 halberd” or a “$25 suit of armor.”  While you could buy a good sword for less than $50 in today’s money, the very best antiques might still cost between $500-$2000.

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